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Over the years, police misconduct has been a pervasive issue in the United States of America. More recently, with the increased cases of use of excessive force by law enforcement, the matter has gone beyond the limits. It is quite unfortunate that police brutality has become a fixture in the daily news cycle. Moreover, it is unnerving to think that one could potentially be a victim of such a misconduct. The spread of the cases of police misconduct negates the possibilities of having just a few ‘bad apples’ and indicates that the cause could be a systemic flaw in the police departments. Beginning with inadequacy in the training of police officers, the problem continues with the militarization of the police. Moreover, it is exasperated by the lack of legal actions against the police involved in police misconduct. Therefore, solving the issue could necessitate carrying out reforms on the police as well as adopting legislative measures to make the police more accountable to the public and to minimize the militarization of the police. This paper examines the problem of police brutality, elucidating its causes, and finally giving the solutions to this problem.
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Police brutality is the use of force beyond necessary level, verbal attacks, and intimidation by officers during law enforcement activities (Kille, 2015). An officer may be compelled to undertake certain actions when a perpetrator resists arrest. Even so, it is only prudent of the officer to use a reasonable amount of force to ensure that the offender complies. Any use of force beyond the achievement of compliance may qualify as being excessive quite easily. However, the question remains as to when a police officer’s actions during enforcing the law become illegal.
A force continuum, or policies that describe standard escalating series of actions an officer should take in resolving a case of resistance, guides law enforcement agencies. In most cases, the mere presence of the police is enough to prevent crimes. The officer may issue commands to the violators in an attempt to gain their compliance. However, empty-hand control actions may be used if a perpetrator resists arrest. They involve soft techniques such as joint locks, grabs and holds or hard techniques (only if the individual fights back) like punches and kicks. If the situation requires, less lethal methods such as blunt impacts, chemical sprays and Conducted Energy Devices like stun guns may be used to restrain the individual or the crowd. If the suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another person, the officer may use lethal weapons to gain control of the situation (National Institute of Justice, 2009).
According to Kille (2015), there are numerous cases of police going overboard on their authority in the employment of excessive force against suspects. A notable incident was the highly questionable death of Sandra Bland, who was arrested for a traffic violation and detained for allegedly assaulting a state trooper (Champion, 2001). She was found dead three days later in a cell at Waller County jail. In another case, a video released last year showed a Colorado Springs police officer slamming a handcuffed teen into the ground and knocking her teeth out (Reisig & Terrill, 2003). Erick Garner was another unfortunate victim of police brutality after he had died of an apparent chokehold. A month after the death of Erick Garner, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown ignited protests. In Cleveland, 20-year old Tamir Rice was shot by the police when playing with a toy pistol. One should mention Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. In 2014, the Department of Justice revealed that the Albuquerque, N.M., police department engages in a patterned use of excessive force and later in the same year disclosed a similar finding regarding the Cleveland Police Department (Kille & Wihbey, 2015). Up to October 2015, there were 385 fatal shootings; these statistics are twice the rate of deadly shootings by police in the previous years as recorded by the government (Kindy, 2015).
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Inevitably, these cases of police misconduct have sparked debates of discriminatory intent based on racial disparities. The Washington Post compiled a database of all the fatal police shootings in the year 2015 (National Institute of Justice, 2009). There was a fair share in the ratio of the overall victims of police brutality. However, the demographics shifted sharply in the cases of armed victims. Approximately 35% of the unarmed victims were African-Americans or Hispanics. Katheryn K. Russell, law professor at the University of Florida, says that the public face of a police brutality victim is a young man who is Latino or Black (Kindy, 2015).
When compounded, several cases cease to be simple data. Moreover, police brutality proves to be a systemic problem (Williams, 2015). While the self-defense factor cannot be ignored, it is not entirely justifiable for the police to employ these tactics that are unauthorized in law enforcement. It is also understandable that the officers are only human and they may act under the pressure of the post chase adrenaline and, quite possibly, out of anger. However, such defensive claims only shift the limelight to the law enforcement agencies that are responsible for training the recruits. Conclusively, police departments do not provide adequate training to officers in dealing with cases of non-compliance during arrests (Miller, Hess, & Orthmann, 2013). The officers readily resort to violent measures in such cases, which should be avoided. The considerable number of the mentally ill victims of brutality has also raised further questions concerning the training of the law enforcers. According to the Washington Post, a quarter of the victims of police brutality in 2015 were mentally-ill (Kindy, 2015). The statistics highlight the inadequacy of the training of police officers (Kindy, 2015). A 2015 report by the Department of Justice that analyzed 394 incidents involving fatal use of police force in Philadelphia had found that the officers did not receive regular training on the department’s policy regarding use of deadly force (Kille, 2015).
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According to the National Institute of Justice (2009), the Justice Department reports that more departments authorize the use of stun guns to step up the defensive tactics of officers. However, this measure appears to have served as an offensive tactic as well, as seen in the case of Sandra Bland at whom the police officer had pointed a stun gun threatening to fire. In another case, Charles Bates was charged with second-degree murder after allegedly confusing a stun gun with a pistol (Kindy, 2015). He shot at the suspect who had already been subdued by his colleagues. The report by the Justice Department found that the sanctioning of these weapons has risen from 60% in 2007 to 81% in 2013 (Kindy, 2015). The use of the weapons has resulted in police officers resorting to their use even when it is unnecessary.
Moreover, the increased militarization of the police is another reason for the notable increase in brutality. Radley Balko (2013) mentions in his book Rise of the Warrior Police that cops have been increasingly militarized to the point that they resemble ground troops, the consequences of which have been dire as the Fourth Amendment has been gutted and police officers are conditioned to see citizens as enemies. According to Champion (2001), the employment of military tactics in the police ranks since debuting in the 1960s, through the invention of the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit, has persisted through generations. Programs such as Reagan’s War on Poverty, Clinton’s COPS program, Nixon’s War on Drugs, and the post 9/11 security state under Obama and Bush have expanded and empowered police officers at the expense of civil liberties (Balko, 2013). The creeping military mentality has subsequently put police officers on a collision course with the values of free society.
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Another probable cause of police brutality is the reluctance among police officers to report cases of the brutality of colleagues against suspects. Hopson (2011) elucidates that law enforcers have the tragic tendency of turning the other cheek on fellow officers. A research by the Department of Justice has revealed that 84% of officers saw fellow officers employ excessive force on felons, and 64% did not do anything about it (National Institute of Justice, 2009). This subversion has left civilians to be the only watch-dogs of each other, and it has been quite evident as most of the reported cases of police brutality have been courtesy of civilian accounts.
Furthermore, the consequences of misconduct of police officers are minimal. Most cases of misconduct often go uninvestigated. According to Kindy (2015), in New Jersey, for instance, 99% of the reported cases have remained unresolved. Out of the 384 cases of fatal shootings reported in 2015, only 3 resulted in the conviction of the police officers involved (Kindy, 2015). The statistics have not varied much over the years. There were 10,000 complaints lodged against the Chicago Police Department between 2002 and 2004 and only 19 of them resulted in disciplinary action (Kindy, 2015). Moreover, Kindy (2015) further unveils that, according to the USA Today, more than 95% of cases of police misconduct referred for prosecution are rejected because juries have been conditioned to dismiss the credibility of the victims as highly questionable. The lack of adequate action against law enforcers has largely contributed to the cultivation of an abuse-friendly environment (Williams, 2015).
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Additionally, the financial burden of officers who violate the code of conduct is loaded on the taxpayers. The result of this practice is that it removes a substantial incentive to good behavior. Apart from covering police officers’ salaries, the settlement or civil jury award is levied on the taxpayers. Similarly, the defense fund of police officers is drawn out of the city budget, which means that in a lawsuit filed against a police officer, the defendant’s bank account is probably unaffected even if he or she loses the case. Therefore, the financial repercussions of police misconduct rest squarely on the citizens and potentially serve as a leeway to misconduct by the police (Williams, 2015).
As much as the police officers themselves, police agencies, and the government are to blame for most cases of police brutality, it would be unwise to ignore the role of the suspects themselves in such cases. The people involved in fatal shootings often have histories of run-ins with the law (Hopson, 2011). Therefore, police officers confront suspects with the backdrop of criminals imprinted at the back of their minds. It is highly likely that the officer will react violently to the slightest provocation or threat, more out of instincts than reason. For example, Daniel Elrod, who was shot thrice by the Omaha police after robbing a Family Dollar store, had been arrested 16 times over the last 15 years (Kindy, 2015). The same mentality clouds the judgment of law enforcers working in environments with largely disproportionate rates of crime. According to Reisig and Terrill (2003), the implication of high crime-rate neighborhoods is the presumption of violent behavior of the suspect. Reisig and Terrill (2003) further affirm that this assumption makes the law enforcers use force so readily.
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The first step to stopping police brutality is a pro-active mass action by the local communities (Hopson, 2011). Police brutality is a national issue that calls for collective action by the people. The communities should organize demonstrations to push the government to implement reforms in the police departments. Some peaceful protests and campaigns have also played a significant role in reducing police brutality, especially those involving racial profiling of African-Americans. The campaigns have the ability to draw the attention of the federal government as well as the international community. Therefore, more of such campaigns will significantly help to reduce police brutality in the United States.
It would only be reasonable to allow the people to have a stake in law enforcement to ensure the officers operate effectively and within the limits of their authority without compromising civil liberties (Kille, 2015). Therefore, the police departmental heads should be voted into their positions by the citizens of the states. However, to prevent politicizing the position, nomination roles and approval by the Senate should remain unchanged. Therefore, the public gains some control in how they are being policed. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) should also be more accountable to the public by releasing data on the number of justifiable homicides by police officers. The release will enable the public to review the cases. The knowledge that the cases will be scrutinized and not merely brushed off as justifiable may necessitate better conduct among the police.
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Moreover, the police departments should cultivate impartial mentalities on the police during training. The law enforcers should be able to make objective judgments in all situations. This mindset calls for better orientation of the police officers towards democratic ideals during training (Champion, 2001). The focus lies in ensuring that the police make unprejudiced decisions during the enforcement of the law. Their actions must never be clouded by precedents or prejudice towards the communities they police based on any grounds. The cultivation of objective attitudes could prove to be futile without a diverse composition within the departments. Diversity is a vital element in establishing trust between the police and the communities. That aside, diversity makes the agencies less insular and more receptive to change (Hopson, 2011).
Lastly, the militarization of local police must be controlled. There must be a clear distinction between a police officer and a soldier. As President Obama reiterated, weapons of war have no place on the streets of the United States (Miller et all., 2013). Such weapons only serve to collide with the liberties of the people and increase the brutality of the police. Having said this, the executive branch should implement legislative action limiting the use of the special police agencies such as SWAT. The wars on issues such as poverty and drugs do not call for the militarization of the local police. The special units should come in handy during desperate situations such as terrorist attacks (Balko, 2013).
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This paper has clearly evaluated the issue of police brutality that has been prevalent over the years. The paper begins by explaining the social ill of police brutality by briefly explicating the big picture, which essentially involves the excessive use of force among the police. This involves giving real life examples of victims such as Sandra Bland and Erick Garner among others. The paper also identifies several causes behind police brutality, including militarization of the police, lack of legal action against the officers involved, and negligence among police officers to report their colleagues who perpetuate these menace. More importantly, the paper acknowledges the existence of several solutions. In one way or another, this can help to curb police brutality to the very people that they ought to protect from any form of harm. These include proper training of officers and implementation of reforms in the police departments regarding militarization and consequences of violation of the force continuum.